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Kelpie Wilson: A Tale of Two Frogs

A Tale of Two Frogs

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Environmental Editor

Friday 08 December 2006

I learned something fascinating this week. I am in San Francisco, staying with friends, and my host Dave Parks is a physicist as well as an accomplished naturalist.

The last time I saw him, Dave told me that under an ultraviolet light, scorpions will glow with a green fluorescence. To prove it, he brought a portable black light and we went into my yard that night and started lifting rotten logs and shining the light under them. Sure enough, we soon saw a bright green scorpion, looking like a creepy rubber glow-in-the-dark toy. Dave couldn't tell me why scorpions do that, but he could prove that they do.

This week, Dave told me that frogs in Alaska will freeze solid in the winter. Not surprising in itself, but I was amazed to learn that in the spring when they thaw out, they don't melt into a putrefying mess of flesh, but start hopping around as if they'd never spent the winter as a frog-flavored popsicle.

That made me think of a better-known but less fortunate property of frogs, their propensity to cook to death when placed in a pan of cold water that is slowly heated to boiling. Because the heating is slow, they never react by jumping out of the pan. Their world goes from cozy, to hot tub on-high, to full rolling boil before they can do anything about it. This frog story has also became the standard explanation for why humans are not reacting with appropriate speed to climate change - the heating is coming on too slowly to raise the alarm and make us do something.

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But depending on what part of the planet you occupy, the gradual heating scenario may no longer hold true. The Arctic, a place that few people inhabit or visit, is heating much faster than the rest of the planet, and devastating changes are already underway. Europe is another region that is feeling the heat more than most. Europe seems to be skipping winter this year as flowers bloom on Alpine ski slopes and bears find their dens too warm and soggy to hibernate in. That is one reason why Britain and other EU countries display a growing sense of urgency as they lead global efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Dave had one more interesting piece of information for me. He pointed me to a report in the science journal Nature that included this map of global temperature over a three month period this fall:

As you can see, Europe and the Arctic have been very warm, but most of the continental United States has been cooler than normal. This does not mean that the US will stay cool in the future, but at this particular stage of the change that is transforming our planet, it means that people in the US are having more of a frozen frog experience than a boiling frog experience.

At this moment in time, the nation most responsible for climate change is the least effected by the consequences. Our cool weather is unfortunate, because it is prolonging the day of reckoning when Americans realize that we really do have to do something about climate change.

If ski slopes in Colorado were sitting bare in December, and if roses were blooming right now in Vermont, would Americans be demanding that government take action to slow climate change? Would Justice Scalia have questioned the "imminent harm" of global warming as he did during oral arguments last week of a landmark case to require the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide?

We had a global warming scare during the 2005 hurricane season, but when we don't feel the heat, we tend to kick back and think the thermostat is working fine.

We have the same attitude toward oil depletion and seem to take our cues strictly from the current price at the pump. It was discouraging to see news reports this week that sales of SUVs are up and hybrid cars are down, closely tracking the recent gas price drop.

Britain is seeing an opposite trend with SUV sales down last month. Christopher Macgowan, head of a British motor trade group, explained the trend, saying, "Lower fuel consumption and emissions are now as important for many people as safety features and price."

Britain is feeling the heat. But it's not just a matter of the senses; it's also down to the greater prominence of climate change in the British media and in government deliberations that reinforce the message that it's time to leap out of the pot and take real action.

That kind of public conversation is not happening in the US. While there is increasing coverage of climate change in the US media, it is not necessarily moving people to action.

An NPR story on Wednesday about the climate requirements of grapes and the threat to the wine industry as California's climate heats up was both annoying and dangerous. The reporter refused to strike a note of real concern but fell back on the "American ingenuity" theme, stressing the upbeat attitudes of growers.

After all, the reporter said, California farmers have already made the deserts bloom, so they should be able to come up with a way to deal with climate change.

Americans always insist that we are the miraculous frozen frog, not the boiled frog. Surely when the spring comes we will get up and hop away. Only, this time, it just isn't so.


Kelpie Wilson is the Truthout environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller novel published by North Atlantic Books.

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